MD comptroller discusses Government Center, a/c
May 30, 2017
By Mia McCaslin
This year, 2017, marks a decade in office for Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D). Elected in 2006 and inaugurated in 2007, Franchot has spent the last ten years handling Maryland’s money. As comptroller, Franchot’s responsibilities include administering and collecting taxes as well as serving on various boards and committees.
Franchot sat down to discuss various state and local topics during a wide-ranging interview with the Dundalk Eagle last month.
Local infrastructure issues
Franchot discussed the Board of Public Works’ opposition to the current development plans at the North Point Government Center during his visit to the Eagle office on May 17.
Plans for the Merritt Boulevard/Wise Avenue site, formerly North Point Junior High School, have been a point of contention in the area since County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced plans to offer a portion of the site for commercial development in 2012.
Although developer Vanguard announced commercial development plans, dubbed Merritt Station, various legal battles and the lack of an affirmative vote by the state Board of Public Works has stalled the project for years.
The dilapidation of the building is causing problems for the building itself as well as the surrounding area. In February of 2016, a corroded pipe underneath the center burst and left an oil sheen on the waters of Lynch Cove Run.
“No public building should be allowed to deal with depletion like that,” Franchot said of the building. “And I’m not a construction person, but I think it could be restored for far less money [than a complete rebuilding].”
Franchot stated that his interests with this building are in renovating and maintaining it. Franchot also spoke of the potential for the center if the community works together, painting a picture of a building that can house a community college presence as well as park and recreation programing and other community resources that are youth and recreation oriented.
Though he did not refer to him by name, Franchot slammed Kamanetz for what he perceives as a lack of transparency in the process.
“In Baltimore County, there is an air of unresponsiveness,” he said.
For his part, Franchot would like broader public consensus on a plan for the center before he votes in favor of a project.
“We don’t want to jam something down the public’s throat,” Franchot noted.
Franchot also voiced concern for the local schools and the requirements that they are failing to meet both in space for the growing school populations and in lack of air conditioners at many schools.
Although there are plans for two new elementary schools to be completed in the next three years, and a third has been budgeted for and is awaiting approved construction plans, 39 schools still remain without air conditioning.
According to Franchot, this is unacceptable. Franchot estimates that it would cost less than $50,000 to put temporary air conditioning units into Colgate Elementary School.
“I am happy that there are some plans to renovate, but I am skeptical that the plan is unachievable,” Franchot said.
“They are trying to do so much,” he added, pointing to county plans to add air to 17 additional schools by this fall.
Franchot downplayed the argument that many of the older schools do not have the electrical infrastructure to support temporary units, pointing to newer, more energy-efficient models available today.
As to what he thinks is holding up the addition of air to county classrooms, Franchot simply said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
“This is the way we do things in Baltimore,” Franchot said, again referring — though not by name — to the county executive.
“We do the talking, you do the listening,” he added, echoing Kamenetz’s infamous “It’s my job to talk, your job to listen right now,” response to protestors who disrupted the April 2013 groundbreaking at the new Mays Chapel Elementary School site.
Because taxes and their revenue are a big piece of Franchot’s responsibilities, tax season is a busy time of year for the office of the Comptroller. This year, Franchot was delighted to announce that this state tax season has gone by without much of a hitch. The comptroller’s office has streamlined the calling system, reporting that the more than half a million annual calls received by the office are answered, on average, within 40 seconds.
In processing more than two million tax returns, Franchot states that his office has, for the most part, been able to sift through the returns and successfully block fraudulent refund returns.
“The same technology that allows us to issue a speedy refund allows us to filter and put aside the ones that seem to have issues,” Franchot explained. “We’re fairly good as far as blocking fraudulent requests.”
Although they were able to block many of these requests, the online medium makes it difficult to locate and prosecute those committing tax fraud, according to Franchot. Now that the bulk of returns have been processed, the Comptroller’s office plans to focus on locating these criminals who submit fraudulent returns.
Crack open a cold one with Franchot
Another responsibility of the comptroller includes regulating taxation on alcohol production and sales. This year, Franchot worked with the Maryland General Assembly to get permissions for longer hours and larger available production quotas for craft beer brewers. HB1283 was the bill introduced to the Maryland House of Representatives, and, under its purview, brewery hours are limited and the facilities must close at 10 p.m..
Under this bill, breweries annual tap room barrel limit has been raised from 500 to 2,000. While members of the Brewers Association of Maryland (BAM) are concerned that this increase will not be enough, they agree that the increase is, at the very least, a step in the right direction.
Franchot championed this cause, attending rallies and events across the state including a stop at Dundalk’s own Key Brewing Company.
“I have managed to combine and unite people who voted for Donald Trump with people who voted for Hillary Clinton,” Franchot said, jovially. “Cold Maryland brews have brought together these warring factions.”
Many small breweries are located in Maryland, as well as various national brands. In fact, Guinness plans to open a brewery in Baltimore County within the coming year.
While HB 1283 was passed, Franchot believes that there is more that can be done to make the state hospitable to various breweries and “make Maryland one of the best places for independent and family-owned breweries.”
Looking ahead with Franchot
Franchot, who is not term limited, plans to run for his fourth term as comptroller in 2018. It is unclear what Franchot’s 2022 plans are, although he did note that he enjoys his current position.
“I’m happy being comptroller,” Franchot said. “I get to do a lot of good things for the state.”
He alluded to the possibility that he might retire at the end of a potential next term, though he added, “You never say never.”